Groton fifth-graders making magnet school choice

Groton — Fifth-graders from Mary Morrisson Elementary School, during a visit earlier this month to West Side STEM Magnet Middle School, were learning what it would be like to be West Side students — and also civil engineers.

"Welcome to our makerspace," STEM coordinator Amy Murphy told the fifth-graders. "As you guys walked in, you were magically transformed into civil engineers."

The students began an activity in which they learned what civil engineers do and worked in small groups to build the tallest tower out of plastic straws. They came up with the name of a company, brainstormed and sketched out a design and then got to work, each group building a tower. After the winning company cheered, Murphy asked the teams what went well and what they would do to improve.

In preparation for choosing which magnet school they'd prefer to attend next year, Groton fifth-graders have been visiting both West Side and Cutler Arts and Humanities Magnet Middle School, and the district has been providing information on the two schools to the children's families.

For the second year, the school district is holding a lottery for the intradistrict magnet middle schools after receiving a five-year, $4 million federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant that would diversify the schools. The two middle schools turned into intradistrict magnet middle schools beginning with the 2018-19 school year, each with its own unique focus — Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology at West Side and arts and humanities at Cutler —and community partners that provide hands-on learning.

At Cutler on Monday, current students and teachers gathered for a magnet showcase to show what the students learned in their discrete magnet classes this trimester. Before the performances, Leslie Forbes, arts and humanities coordinator, explained that magnet classes happen during the day, so the students don't have dress rehearsals as they would have with after-school productions.

"What they're doing takes a lot of courage," she said.

Four students stood on the stage and sang "Lean on Me" into a microphone while students sitting on the stage strummed away on guitars.

"You just call on me, brother, when you need a friend," the students sang as they started walking across the stage clapping, prompting students and classmates to join in clapping. "We all need somebody to lean on."

During the showcase, students showed their acting techniques in "12 Angry Pigs," a spoof of the play "12 Angry Men," gave a digital music performance of the "Stranger Things" theme and performed dance moves, including student-choreographed numbers, and the event culminated with a surprise flash mob by faculty and staff.

Kathy Wilson, International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme coordinator and lottery administrator, said students at both schools receive instruction in all eight subjects of the rigorous IB Middle Years Programme, which focuses on problem-solving, critical thinking and inquiry-based instruction where students are in charge of their learning. The program aims to create internationally minded citizens and to teach children how to learn, rather than providing them with content and having them memorize it.

Each school has its own "engagement theme" that is integrated into the curriculum, Wilson said. For example, during a science class at Cutler, students might move around as bumble bees for a lesson on pollination as they show their knowledge through the arts, while students at West Side might create rockets from plastic bottles during an engineering-focused lesson. But though each school has the theme integrated into curriculum, students at Cutler still can take STEM, and students at West Side have arts classes.

West Side has implemented Project Lead the Way into its curriculum, offers a wide range of clubs, including robotics and coding, and integrates STEM with a focus on real-world connections into all the core classes, Murphy said. For example, for National Engineers Week, students did STEM-integrated projects in all subjects, including a project to research leading scientists and engineers for Black History Month. Through community partners, such as Project Oceanology and New England Science & Sailing, the students have gone seal-watching, completed a unit on the decline of the lobster population due to climate change and learned how to build a machine that would sail across the floor.

Murphy pointed to the creativity happening at the school and said she bases every decision on one question: Is it engaging the students? She said the school isn't expecting that every student will want to pursue a career in engineering, but all students are going to be engaged and learn real-life, problem-solving skills that will help them as they move on up to the high school.

Cutler also provides hands-on learning but integrates arts and humanities into the classes.  

"We feel, by using the arts and humanities, we're helping kids be creative, communicate, collaborate, take risks — and they're really the 21st century skills that we think our students are going to need," Forbes said.

Cutler's community partners include Mystic Museum of Art, Mystic Seaport Museum, and Arts for Learning Connecticut, and the school has a variety of clubs, such as yearbook and dance, and discrete magnet classes, such as theater, guitars, an art for trees drawing class, screenwriting, and a multimedia lab. At Cutler, students learn the science and history behind sundials and then make a sundial to be displayed outside the school. Spoken-word performers visit English classrooms to teach students how to express their feelings through spoken word and music. Math teachers did a lesson on slope tied to the artist Sol LeWitt, and students will be taking a field trip to MASS MoCA.

Forbes said while some students may want to follow the magnet-theme path in their careers, the magnet themes are really about what the students are interested in right now and how that interest can help them learn.

Making choices

If the students choose their neighborhood school, they automatically will get in, but if the school is outside their neighborhood, their name will be entered into a random lottery, Wilson said. All students, even if they are picking their neighborhood school, are asked to fill out an application, due March 31, she said. Current middle school students also can choose to move schools, if they wish, though they typically have chosen to stay at their schools.

The lottery will be held April 5 and the computer system automatically will inform parents of the results, who then have a week to accept, she said. There is a waiting list for students who didn't get into their school of choice.

Aby Puller, 12, a seventh-grader at West Side, said she likes her school because the teachers are really nice and students can ask to stay after school if they need homework help or to catch up on work. Puller, who is interested in math and science, said the school gives her opportunities to learn more about medical science and build things.

Amaya Munoz, 11, a fifth-grader at Mary Morrisson, said she's choosing West Side because she loves doing math and wants to follow in the footsteps of her sister, who is a current eighth-grader at the school.

Jayden Moscol, 10, another fifth-grader at Mary Morrisson, was impressed by West Side's big library during his visit and wants to become an engineer when he grows up.

"I'm happy to see how people like math here," he said.

Annalise Otano, 13, seventh-grade at Cutler, said she likes how the school gives students a lot of choices for arts that they can make for their discrete magnet classes, including community arts, theater, broadcasting and screenwriting. She also likes how teachers are incorporating ways students can express themselves through art in the classroom, no matter what the class is, and students get opportunities to have hands-on experience. She said in her computer class, students are actually filming and editing.

Parent Jennifer Carter said her 11-year-old son, Porter Carter, wants to go to Cutler and is excited to finally be able to integrate art into his learning. He has STEM education at his current school, Catherine Kolnaski, so he's now excited to try something different

"He's been drawing since he was 3 and he's quite good," she said. "They have art at his elementary school but it would be really exciting to include art into all the different subjects."

She said with the intra-district magnet school system, kids get to make new friends and meet new people. She said she's always trying to get her son to draw more and get more into art, because it's a good outlet for him besides sports. She said she's really excited to see how they're going to incorporate art into the curriculum.

Divya Varadharajan, 10, a fifth-grader at Mary Morrisson who is interested in becoming an artist or a doctor when she grows up, said after visiting the two magnet schools that both are amazing and the people are kind.

"I'm really excited, so wherever I go to school, I'll still love it," she said.

Superintendent Michael Graner said the program has invigorated the curriculum and provided a great learning experience for both the children and the faculty.

The program has given the district a great opportunity to lay the foundation for the new consolidated middle school, slated to open in 2020, as all teachers have been trained extensively in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, and the magnet-themed pathways will continue in the new school and ensure that the district not only has all children together in one building but also provides socioeconomic diversity within classrooms, he said. 

Wilson said the students, who are technologically advanced and digital natives, are being taught in ways that are more engaging and involved. The school district also is trying to expose them to potential careers that would suit their passions and skills.

She pointed out that the school district can't really prepare the middle school students for specific careers, since it's unknown — in today's changing world — what careers will be available in the future, but can impart the students with the skills they will need.

"If we can teach them how to learn and how to use their resources and to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, then we’ll have done our job," she said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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